How Jose Bautista Went From Baseball Vagabond To The Game’s Best Slugger
Jose Bautista always got A’s in classes that involved math. Algebra, geometry, chemistry, physics: the discipline never mattered. His mind worked like a calculator. Bautista took English lessons as an 8-year-old in the Dominican Republic, and eventually he learned the language, but he preferred the earnestness of numbers. They never lied to him.
“There are no flaws in math,” Bautista says. “You can have 50 people read one paragraph, and they’re going to interpret it in 50 ways. You can’t find anybody who would say two plus two doesn’t equal four.”
More than any sport, baseball loves its numbers. They catalog its past and always have foretold its future. They enforce the game’s caste system. There are superstars, stars, good players, average players, journeymen, fill-ins and minor leaguers. No one moves more than a standard deviation or two from his dominion.
Which is why the game struggles to wrap its mind around Bautista, the Toronto Blue Jays’ right fielder. What he did remains inconceivable: evolve from a nobody, a piece cast off by the sport’s dregs, into the most dangerous hitter on the planet. He hit 54 home runs last year when no one else hit 40, and he followed up this season with the best two-month stretch since Barry Bonds.
History says with no malice that Bautista should not be doing this. He disturbed baseball’s neat order. It was no random stretch, no burp in the matrix. It demanded an explanation. And so for the last 14 months, the scouts and the statisticians and the fans have probed and prodded and dissected Bautista’s ascent, the sort that gives divers the bends. They turned accomplishment into interpretational gymnastics. One set of numbers, 50 theories behind it, all trying to answer the same question.
Baseball’s calculus changed with steroids. No ophthalmologist can fix the lens through which the public now views accomplishment. Success — out-of-nowhere, what-the-hell success especially — begets skepticism. There must be a reason, a plug-and-play, easy-to-digest, quick-and-dirty catch-all that makes way for the next question.
“Sometimes there is a reason,” Bautista says. “It’s just not simple.”
In his free time, Bautista reads books on exceptionality. “I’m trying to understand why mediocre people become good at what they do,” he says, “and why good people become the best.” So he mixes other players’ post-career musings on success with real mental protein. He’s gotten into Malcolm Gladwell. He recently finished “Outliers.”
Were Gladwell writing the book today, Bautista could constitute an entire chapter. He is both the exception and the exceptional, his life every bit as circuitous and unorthodox as his career path.
Unlike so many of his countrymen who grew up impoverished, with milk cartons for gloves and balls made of socks and duct tape, Bautista lived a middle-class childhood with a family that stressed education. His father, Americo, ran poultry farms, and his mother, Sandra, was an accountant and financial planner. Around his neighborhood in the capital city of Santo Domingo, Bautista was known as “El Raton” – the rat, his friends called him, because he was skinny and had big ears.
Bautista eschewed the life of a typical Dominican prospect: drop out of school around 13 and join agents, called buscones, who house and feed them, teach them the game and take usurious cuts of signing bonuses when they cash in at 16 as international free agents. Bautista went to a private Catholic high school and graduated as the youngest in his class. His greatest exposure came from a city league run by the old Dominican ballplayer Enrique “Quique” Cruz. Scouts saw him there and liked him enough to invite him to train at their complexes and see if he might be worth signing.
During the days, Bautista worked out with the New York Yankees. At night, he took business classes at Pontificio Universidad Catolica Madre y Maestra, a college with one of the country’s best business schools. Bautista figured if baseball stardom never materialized, he’d do fine as a bilingual businessman. He took school seriously enough that when the Yankees finally offered him a contract for $5,000 in 1999, Bautista laughed.
“I was not,” Bautista says, “going to drop out of college for $5,000.”
He started training with the Arizona Diamondbacks. They tried to sign him for $42,000. He turned that down, too. Soon thereafter, the Cincinnati Reds recognized the same burgeoning bat speed and arm strength and offered Bautista a $300,000 bonus. He agreed to sign. Then Marge Schott sold the Reds to Carl Lindner, and the franchise reneged on its offer.
Frustrated, Bautista started to splice together a highlight tape of himself filmed on a camcorder. He sent it to colleges in the United States. None responded. His baseball career stagnated until he received a call from a man named Oscar Perez, who he knew from the Quique Cruz League. Perez started telling him about a program in the United States called the Latin Athletes Education Fund. Don Odermann, a businessman in the Bay Area, aids players from Spanish-speaking countries who want to play college baseball in the U.S. And it just so happened Chipola College, a junior college in Florida, needed an everyday player.
The opportunity intrigued Bautista, even more so after he met Odermann, who in his time as a Peace Corps director in Colombia and the Dominican Republic developed an affinity for assisting Latin American teenagers. He’s still at it today.
“I’m up on a mountain here in Puerto Rico talking about baseball,” Odermann says. “I’m looking for the next Jose Bautista.”
Jack Powell found the first Jose Bautista, and he remembers the day well, as does every scout with his prized signee. Bautista was a freshman at Chipola, lithe and angular, bundled potential. He moved well. He laughed a lot. He caught fly balls and fielded ground balls and hit line drives and Powell, then with the Pittsburgh Pirates, couldn’t take his eyes off him.
“You were sold just by watching him,” Powell says.
Scouts disregarded Bautista after he sprained his ankle and missed almost the whole season. Powell filed a report on him anyway: “This kid’s got the potential to hit 30 home runs.” He urged the Pirates’ scouting director, Mickey White, to join him in Florida before the draft to see Bautista in person. Pittsburgh chose Bautista in the 20th round of the 2000 draft and allowed him to return to Chipola, where they would track him as a draft-and-follow candidate whom they could sign anytime over the next year. Bautista thrived as a sophomore and held a scholarship to South Carolina over the Pirates’ heads. He never lost that businessman’s intuition, either: They gave him $500,000, 100 times the Yankees’ offer.
Two years later, he was one of the Pirates’ best prospects, a 22-year-old third baseman hitting third in High-A, three steps from the major leagues. His Lynchburg Hillcats team teemed with future major leaguers: Nate McLouth, Ryan Doumit, Jeff Keppinger, Ronny Paulino, Ian Snell, Bryan Bullington and others. Even among them, Bautista’s tools stood out: the buggy-whip swing, the defensive keenness and the sort of wisdom that belied his age.
“I can remember him swinging at bad pitches just to set up pitchers,” says Dave Clark, the Lynchburg manager and now the Houston Astros’ third-base coach. “You don’t see that from a guy in A ball. He was going to be a winning-type player. He cared. He just felt like every time he went to the plate, he was supposed to get a hit. I was OK with that. But it ended up being a rude awakening for him.”
A little more than 50 games into the season, Bautista returned to the dugout after an out and punched a trash can. Bautista figured it was made of cheap plastic, like in most minor league dugouts. The metal receptacle didn’t give. Bautista cracked a bone in his hand and missed the rest of the season.
“I learned something,” he says. “Not to punch anything if I don’t know what it’s made of.”
The odyssey started Dec. 15, 2003 and ended 229 days later, leaving Bautista exactly where he was before: baseball purgatory. Between the punch and the iffy production before it, the Pirates started to sour on Bautista and left him exposed in the Rule 5 draft, the annual Winter Meetings grab bag in which teams take a $50,000 flier on a high-upside player. It reduced Bautista to a tin can, kicked about and unwanted and left to rust.
Five teams gave up on him that season. He appeared in transaction agate more than a desperate socialite shows up on Page Six. Designated for assignment, waived, sold, traded: Bautista got dumped in nearly every fashion possible.
The Baltimore Orioles selected him as a Rule 5 pick in December 2003 and replaced him in late May with 27-year-old Jose Leon, who had 66 at-bats that year and never played in the major leagues again. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays held onto Bautista for three weeks before discarding him for Joey Gathright, who would go on to have the worst slugging percentage of any player with at least 1,000 at-bats in the 2000s. The Kansas City Royals purchased Bautista for $50,000, stuck him on the bench as journeyman Desi Relaford garnered full-time at-bats and a month later traded him to the New York Mets for Justin Huber, who bombed out after 175 at-bats. The Mets owned Bautista’s rights for mere minutes, spinning him back to Pittsburgh in a deal for Kris Benson.
“We weren’t sure about Bautista’s bat,” says Jim Beattie, then the Orioles’ co-general manager.
They weren’t the only ones. The Devil Rays’ scouting director, Cam Bonifay, was the GM in Pittsburgh when the Pirates drafted and signed Bautista. His time with Tampa Bay left quite the impression. “I can’t remember that far back,” Bonifay says. The Rays’ GM at the time, Chuck LaMar, couldn’t recall any specifics, either. “If we had him,” LaMar says, “I guess we’re part of that success story.”
The best hitter in baseball ended up with a major league-record five teams in one season, his talent locked inside a safe he couldn’t crack. By the end of his Rule 5 odyssey, Bautista hit .208 with two RBIs and struck out in nearly half of his 48 at-bats. Even if his development schedule suggested he spend the year in Double-A, 2004 firmed up the perception about Bautista.
“I remember when I started working for the Mets,” says Rafael Perez, now New York’s director of international operations. “I asked one of the scouts what he thought about Jose. I’ll never forget the response: ‘He’s a fourth outfielder.’”
Bautista fell in and out of favor over the next four years with Pittsburgh, the prime of most players’ careers. The Pirates batted him toward the bottom of the order and suggested he try to hit the ball to the opposite field. He chafed at the idea, and the sour relationship reached its nadir Aug. 13, 2008, when the team demoted Bautista to Triple-A. He went to Pirates GM Neal Huntington and suggested the team place him on waivers so it could shed the remainder of his $2.4 million salary and he could start over.
“Sometimes you’ve got to get with the right people,” says Clark, his Class A manager. “It’s kind of like being with a few different women before you find the one you want to spend the rest of your life with.”
No one knew. That’s what they all say now, even Bautista himself. No one realized the impact of one trade, one conversation, one modification. On Aug. 21, 2008, the day the Pirates sent Bautista to Toronto for a third-string catcher named Robinzon Diaz, Toronto Star columnist Richard Griffin asked Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi about Bautista.
“This guy isn’t like Mike Schmidt,” Ricciardi said. “He’s not going to come out and hit 40 home runs.”
Bautista arrived in Toronto and proceeded to go 0 for 14. Though any slump triggered fear from his Rule 5 days, Bautista’s new manager, Cito Gaston, and first-base coach, Dwayne Murphy, urged him to relax. They saw potential in Bautista. As long as he worked with them — Murphy would become hitting coach before the 2010 season, and Gaston was long considered a hitting guru — they believed they could blow open the safe. After years of failing to do so in Pittsburgh, Bautista embraced them.
“Baseball is one of the sports where it’s hardest to make adjustments and trust in changes,” Bautista says. “Your results immediately are affected by making a change, and at least at the beginning, in the short term, it affects them negatively. Your production goes down when you make a change. It might help you in the long run, but it’s really tough to trust in yourself. You feel like your role gets affected, and maybe negatively. I knew I needed to make changes to become successful in the future. But if I did them and didn’t pick it up in one or two months, I might’ve been out of a job anyway. It’s hard for guys to do that, and I know because I went through it.”
Before they tried to rescue Bautista’s psyche, Gaston and Murphy wanted to overhaul his swing. Scouts admired Bautista’s hips as much as Shakira’s. The torque he generated allowed him to wait for the ball to travel deeper into the strike zone before he started his swing. Bautista knew this but never took advantage of it. The late start on Bautista’s swing negated his hips’ quickness. Gaston and Murphy urged Bautista to trigger his swing by moving his top hand in a small semicircle almost a second earlier than before and allow his wrists to drive the bat through the zone.
“I used to start when the pitcher would let go of the ball,” Bautista says. “His position would be like this” — he freezes his arm at a 90-degree angle, his wrist next to his ear — “and the ball would come out of his hand and I’d just be late. When the pitcher takes the ball out of his glove [now], I’m moving. I’ve got all this time to load. My top hand moves at the same rate as the pitcher is cocking his arm.”
Bautista added a leg lift, too, mainly for rhythm. He drew inspiration from some of his favorite hitters –Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez, Ichiro Suzuki — and spent hours studying their swings. Blue Jays teammate Rajai Davis, who played with Bautista in their first professional season 10 years ago, calls his video sessions “manic.” Bautista saw others’ good tendencies and his bad and tried to flip-flop the two.
He also adopted Murphy’s grip-and-rip motto. Look for a good pitch, Murphy urged, and don’t miss it. Innate strike-zone judgment helped Bautista avoid the eagerness that plagues some of Murphy’s other disciples.
“You look at the pitches he takes,” Murphy says. “It’s crazy. Nasty pitches that he lays off. Real good hitters do that. Mediocre hitters get themselves out on those pitches.”
The new swing took about a year to sync, by which time the Blue Jays had cleared spots in their lineup for him. From April through August 2009, Toronto never gave Bautista more than 68 plate appearances in a month. In September and October, he strode up 125 times. Ten at-bats ended in home runs, the most in baseball over that time period. Since then, he has hit 75 home runs. Albert Pujols ranks second with 57.
“It’s like the atom,” says Powell, the scout who signed him. “He’s trying to figure out how it works. He wants to know how to split an atom. And finally, he did it.”
Bautista needs to understand how and why things work. He obsesses over it, now and in his youth, when he and his brother, Luis, would plunder the guts of broken electronic equipment, study them and build something new.
He understands how he was baseball’s collective mistake, why five teams gave up on him, why another seven disregarded him in the Rule 5 draft and waiver process, why the 18 others declined to pay more than the $50,000 Kansas City did: He wasn’t ready for this.
And he understands why Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos approached his agent, Bean Stringfellow, last fall and initiated what eventually would lead to a five-year, $64 million contract he signed at the start of spring training: He is, in addition to baseball’s best home run hitter, a little bit of everyone in the game. He grew up in the Dominican Republic and commiserates with the Blue Jays’ sizeable Latin presence. He went to college and speaks better English than most American players. His trials allow him to appreciate the struggles of lesser players, and his triumphs win him the instantaneous respect he works to foster.
He understands, too, why “strangers treat me like I’ve never been treated before. It’s strange. They treat you like a — ”
He stops. He wants to say a god, because that’s how it is — mouths agape, eyes aflutter, excitement spasmodic — but he’s too polite.
” — it’s like they respect you or something. I think it’s funny. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it. I guess on your second go-around, people are more aware of you, more prone to recognize you. They believe in you.”
He understands that belief because he studies the game. He knows that in 1973, Davey Johnson hit 43 home runs a year after he hit five. And that Jayson Werth, the outfielder who signed a $126 million deal with the Washington Nationals this off-season, wasn’t a full-time player until his 29th birthday. And that “Cactus” Gavvy Cravath, who held baseball’s home run record until Babe Ruth, was a career minor leaguer until he turned 31. He is not the first outlier.
Most of all, Bautista thinks he understands how all this happened. In “Outliers,” Gladwell outlines the 10,000-Hour Rule — the idea, based on Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson’s theory, that success manifests itself when a person spends 10,000 hours practicing a particular task. It often takes a decade.
Another chapter focuses on the superiority of youth hockey players in Canada born in January, February and March, just after the cutoff date from the previous year. Their physical and mental development, the argument goes, gives them a distinct advantage over kids just months younger. Bautista was born in October 1980, and his parents pushed him ahead rather than hold him back and let him be the oldest in his grade.
“Both of those apply to me,” Bautista says. “That’s the thing about this. Everybody wants a quick answer. They want to say I’m doing this for one reason. But I lost two years to my injury in 2003 and the Rule 5 thing in 2004. And then I bounced back and forth, and my at-bats in the majors were still developmental for me. And the swing is totally different. These are all things that should be looked at. A lot of things can add up to someone being a late bloomer.
“It’s not always luck.”
As much as he hates it, Jose Bautista also understands the steroid specter.
We’ve seen this before. New swing. Late bloomer. The excuses don’t change. Only the names and faces. And it doesn’t matter that at 6-foot, 195 pounds, Bautista cuts the same unimposing figure as Hank Aaron, as Willie Mays, as Mickey Mantle. He is playing 2011, which means he bears the consequences of those who abused performance-enhancing drugs in the 1990s and 2000s, that he sees his accomplishments sheathed in cynicism.
“I haven’t done anything to create suspicion other than play well,” Bautista says. “I think it’s sad and funny at the same time. When did the default on achievement become cheating or beating the system or doing something illegal?”
The damage from the last 20 years remains palpable. Not only are baseball’s historic numbers now subject to a morality divide, every present-day achievement finds itself under an electron microscope, ultimately never free of suspicion. A Toronto columnist last August questioned whether Bautista could possibly do what he had done clean. Others later intoned hope that he was drug-free, which amounted to tacit implications that he might not be. White Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson in May suggested Bautista could be corking his bat. Bautista may hold no ill will toward his predecessors — “At the time,” he says, “they were doing it under conditions that were there” — but their deeds bring his into question.
And they stay there, even though Bautista has deposited clean urine into dozens of test cups, even though, when asked whether he would have used steroids back in the 1990s, he says: “No. That’s not my nature. I didn’t cheat on tests in school. I don’t skip working out and use something else to boost my performance. I try to be the best at anything I can be, that being school, baseball. Whatever I take serious, I do it to get better, to learn and to be successful. I’m not going to half-ass anything. My success is based on hard work, dedication and perseverance. I have no shame in talking about it, and I have nothing to hide. So when people ask those questions, if that’s what I’ve got to deal with because of my success, I’ll deal with it. I know I haven’t done anything wrong. Whatever. I’ll face whatever questions anyone has.”
They’ll continue for the rest of Bautista’s career. He is steroids’ collateral damage. If he keeps hitting home runs, he’s got to be on something. If he stops, he must’ve quit taking them.
The whole thing is rigged, of course. No matter how strong his case, Bautista knows he cannot win a debate where he argues against perception. He faces it with certitude and conviction anyway, with the hope that people choose to trust him. He understands, above all, himself.
It’s just that simple.